The new season at the Globe Theatre is entitled 'The Word is God', presumably because this year celebrates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The Globe staged a reading of that tome last month over several days. And first up in this season is one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays': 'All's Well That Ends Well'.
Shakespeare wrote this play around 1604-05, but it doesn't seem to have been terribly popular in his day, and it's not exactly on the top of the pile when directors and producers today are making production choices. So it's quite a brave decision by the Globe to take on this work at the start of the season. However, it's not a decision they're likely to regret if the audience reaction is anything to go by.
The real 'problem' about this play is to be found in the plot. Helena fancies the pants off Bertram and when he goes off to the court of the King of France, she follows him. The King is sick and Helena uses her dead father's knowledge to cure him. As a reward, she's offered the hand of any man at court and duly chooses Bertram. And here's where things go awry. At first, Bertram won't play ball, as he thinks Helena is unworthy, and beneath his social standing. The King, however, has other ideas and Bertram is cajoled into matrimony, but promptly heads off to war sending Helena back to his family home with a letter telling her he won't be her husband unless she can get his ring and become pregnant by him. You'd think that Helena might give up on Bertram and their marriage as 'no-brainers'. But no. Via a 'bed trick' Helena manages to satisfy Bertram's conditions and they are reunited and all ends happily ever after. Satisfying? Hardly. And that's because it doesn't make sense that Bertram would change his tune so readily. But maybe that's Shakespeare's point.
John Dove's directorial vision here is rooted in the traditional. No gadgets, awnings or other mechanical devices are used to spice up the piece. There are sumptuous costumes on display, though, and Michael Taylor's design incorporates two huge and handsome panels at each side of the stage which get flipped over to change scenes. As always at the Globe, music is an integral part of the production, but here it's more subtly employed, though still hugely effective.
What makes this production enormously watchable and rewarding are the characterisations. Sam Crane's Bertram is most definitely haughty and arrogant, but in an immature sort of way. He's certainly a 'proud, scornful boy' as the King puts it so well, full of his own self-importance. And his inexperience means he has to fall back on his limited knowledge of rank and where he thinks he stands on the social ladder. I wasn't so convinced about the denouement, though, where he's eventually reconciled with Helena. All doesn't seem quite so well there.
Janie Dee is authoritative, perceptive and understanding as the Countess of Rousillon. She also has a nice line in understatement such as when she is told her son has 'wedded but not bedded' Helena, she says “This is not well”. Similarly, Sam Cox as the King of France tells us near the end that he is 'Wrapped in dismal thinking', which delivered a wave of laughter from a very appreciative audience. Colin Hurley also found favour as the rather glum, but down-to-earth clown, Lavatch. And I found myself feeling sympathy for James Garnon's excellent Parolles who has to endure excessive taunts and connivances from almost every quarter. But he too won approval from the yard when he called to Bertram “What's the matter, sweetheart?”.
'All's Well That Ends Well' might not be the most satisfying play in terms of plot, but it does have some interesting characters which are richly developed here by a well-directed cast. The result is a fresh and appealing production which proves to be a first-rate start to this new season, and certainly whets the appetite for what lies ahead.